Article

Gray Matters: An interview with author Brett McCracken

Dec 4, 2013

The Bible is clear on many ethical issues. Adultery, for example, is not only forbidden but the lust that typically precedes the act is violently opposed. Jesus says it is better to have one’s eye gauged out and tossed away than it is to look at a woman lustfully (Matt. 5:29). He does not mean that we actually pluck out our eyes, but the imagery gives us an idea of the seriousness of the offense. But there are other situations that aren’t so clearly defined, such as what music to listen to or how much is too much to eat. These are what Brett McCracken calls gray areas, those areas that are left for us to pray through and seek guidance.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN.com, Christianity Today and the Princeton Theological Review.

Your subtitle suggests that we could fall prey to legalism when thinking through gray matters. What is your definition of legalism? 

BRETT MCCRACKEN: I see legalism as an unhealthy fixation on rules and “dos-and-don’ts” moralism. It minimizes grace by emphasizing works, focusing on strict formulae for behavior and a preference for control over freedom. The legalism I talk about in Gray Matters, however, is more specifically about one’s posture toward culture. Legalism is a posture largely of fear, seeing pop culture mostly as something dangerous that Christians should avoid, lest they be tainted, corrupted, led down a slippery slope, etc. It’s a posture that focuses more on curse counting as a way to evaluate a movie, for example, rather than on the positive attributes (goodness, truth, beauty) that might be found therein.

What is your definition of liberty?

MCCRACKEN: In one sense (the soteriological sense), liberty is the freedom we have in Christ to break the chains of a works-based salvation or a rules-oriented religion. It’s the freedom of justification by grace alone. In another sense, liberty is the freedom God grants each individual Christian to enjoy or participate in a wide range of cultural activities that Scripture does not directly speak about, without being judged by other Christians (Rom. 14:1-8). It’s the liberty to exercise one’s preferences according to one’s conscience, within the bounds of whatever Scripture says explicitly or implicitly about a given thing. But liberty has limits. As Paul says, all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 10:21). We have the freedom to do a lot of things, but not all of them are wise. 

How can Christians guard against the temptation to legalism in these gray areas? 

MCCRACKEN: Three practical tips: 

1. Forge relationships with all sorts of people from all sorts of perspectives. Nothing kills narrow-minded dogmatism and cultivates nuance like getting to know a variety of people who hold different views on these issues and yet still are seeking to passionately follow after Christ. 

2. As often as you can, experience Christian community in different cultural contexts. It will open your eyes to how small-minded we can be when we think that our way of doing things is the only right way. There is huge diversity in the way Christians across the world navigate their relationship with culture. Learning more about what informs those perspectives and what we can learn from them is a healthy thing. 

3. Read a ton. Read all sorts of things. Read to learn what others love and why. Read the classics of Christian wisdom. Read smart Christian critics of culture. Reading can really expand one’s world and one’s ability to locate goodness, beauty and truth in a whole host of things that might otherwise seem trivial, grotesque or un-edifying.

Do you discuss license? If so, how might you encourage Christians to guard against license?

MCCRACKEN: Again, three tips: 

1. Be self-critical about your motivations for exercising “license.” Are you doing it because you grew up in a more legalistic environment and are now rebelling against that? Are you a libertine because you are trying to prove something to the world (“I’m not one of those prudish, fundamentalist Christians!”)? I think today many young Christians are celebrating license less out of a desire to know God more and worship him through culture than a desire to shed the legalistic baggage of their youth. 

2. Listen to those who say no and respect their abstention. If you have a friend who doesn’t drink alcohol or refuses to watch an R-rated movie, don’t judge them; get to know their rationale. Learn from them. If they make you feel guilty, think about why. 

3. Think carefully about the “all things are permissible but not all things are beneficial” idea. License in cultural consumption is a great thing, but shouldn’t be abused. Not everything is beneficial, and we should be willing to admit that to ourselves more often than we do. 

What about interacting with others, do you see a temptation or tendency for Christians to push their conviction on others? If so, how do we balance living with others and extending grace?

MCCRACKEN: It’s a hard balance. Our tendency is to want to believe that our conviction and our conscience on a matter should be shared by others. We want to believe that if something seems wrong to us, it must be wrong for everyone. If we have a hard time watching certain types of movies, but other Christians in our community are not affected negatively by the same movies and have no problem watching them, we can be left feeling prudish or judged. But it goes both ways (Rom. 14:3). The Christian who drinks alcohol regularly should not judge the Christian who is a teetotaler; likewise, the teetotaler shouldn’t judge the drinker. We shouldn’t be fighting about these disputable matters (Rom. 14:1) and should stop judging one another; rather we must bear with one another in love and not make one another stumble (Rom. 14:13). 

We hear the phrase “to each his own” which leads me to these questions: How do we draw the line on things such as music and movie watching? Is there an element that depends on each individual’s conscience and conviction? And do you think that phrase above is helpful or lacking?

MCCRACKEN: I think “to each his own” is often unhelpful because it places the standard of what is or isn’t OK entirely on the individual. I think that kind of exaggerated subjectivism is often quite dangerous. That said, there definitely is a degree to which the individual person, acting on his or her own conscience and convictions, can come to conclusions that are different than another person. Passages like Romans 14 emphasize the individual conscience in life’s “gray matters”: what's okay for one person may not be for another. Insofar as a cultural activity is not directly forbidden by Scripture or does not prove to be a stumbling block or stepping stone to sin, there is a lot of latitude and liberty given to Christians. But there are certainly limits. It's clear, for example, that one's community should be a factor in one's individual choices--even if it's "ok" for you to do something, should you do it if others in your community may struggle with it? It's also clear in Scripture that the lifestyles of Christians should be distinct and set apart from the surrounding culture. We are called to holiness. To be salt and light. What does this mean for us as we think about how to engage culture? The answers are not simple or easy, but that's the point. The more we think about them and discuss them--not shrugging them off as "subjective" and leaving it at that--the more we will begin to formulate a more robust theology of culture that will bless us individually, advance the witness/mission of the church, and bring glory to God.

In Gray Matters, you focus on eating, listening, watching, and drinking. Why did you choose those areas to concentrate on?

MCCRACKEN: I chose these simply because I think these four modes of cultural consumption are the most common and relatable for all Christians. Almost everyone listens to music and watches movies or television. And everyone, by virtue of being human, eats. I structured the book’s four sections in an order of “least controversial to most controversial,” starting with food, then moving into pop music, movies, and finally drinking (alcohol). By starting with something relatively uncontroversial within Christianity (eating food), I wanted to establish some of the big themes and principles of healthy cultural consumption (moderation, gratitude, the importance of community, etc.) without losing people who have strong opinions about more divisive issues (R-rated movies or alcohol, for example). One of the inspiration verses for the book is 1 Cor. 10:31 (“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”). I really want the book to get Christian readers to think about what it might mean to glorify God in almost any cultural activity. The four genres of culture I cover in are not exhaustive, of course, but I think they help flesh out general principles of cultural consumption that can be applied to almost anything.

Gluttony isn’t addressed much in Christian circles. Do you address it in your book? If so, how?

MCCRACKEN: It’s regrettable that the dangers of gluttony are so little discussed in Christian circles. There were probably a thousand sermons delivered on the dangers of drinking alcohol last year, but how many sermons on the dangers of excessive unhealthy eating? I could probably count them on one hand. I do discuss gluttony in the food section of Gray Matters. Scripture is clear that gluttony is to be avoided (Prov. 23:2, 20-21; Prov. 28:7). I think it’s interesting that in Proverbs 23, gluttony and drunkenness are mentioned in the same breath as vices to avoid. From this passage, over-eating and over-drinking seem to be equally unwise. It’s not that food itself is bad, or alcohol itself; it’s that they can become bad things when we consume them to excess. In keeping with the larger call to exercise restraint and self-control in the use of our bodies (2 Pet. 1:6, Gal. 5:22) and to remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20), I believe Christians must be careful to not eat excessively or without regard to health. 

How would you suggest that we enjoy food to the glory of God?

MCCRACKEN: I would say that one big way that we glorify God through food is simply by eating it with glad and thankful hearts. Food is such a sign of God’s provision for us, and has been throughout Christian history (think about manna in the wilderness, the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper, etc.). We should not eat so fast and thoughtlessly that we forget that first and foremost, food is a gift from God. It sustains life and also tastes good! Eating in community is also a way that we can enjoy food to the glory of God. Nothing draws people together and facilitates fellowship quite like a good, long meal. Jesus himself conducted much of his ministry and outreach around dinner tables, eating with family, friends and sinners of every sort. Finally, I believe a huge way we can glorify God through food is by learning to love it more and appreciate its amazing complexity. Developing one’s taste and expanding one’s palate doesn’t need to be an elitist, snobby thing; it can be a beautiful, almost worshipful thing. “Foodies” must always be cautious to not let their obsession with excellent food become its own sort of legalism (grimacing at the thought of anything processed or non-organic), but on the whole I think that learning to seek out and truly relish the amazing food that exists, by God’s grace, can be a wonderful way to honor the Creator. 

How can we begin to worship or idolize food?

MCCRACKEN: There are various ways that food can become an idol in our lives. As mentioned above, “foodies” definitely run the risk of obsessing so much about haute cuisine that it becomes the object of their worship, rather than something wonderful that they can worship God through. Another way we make food an idol is by fixating on what we eat or don’t eat and how that plays into the control we can exert over our bodies, physique, weight, etc. Many people obsess about diets, health food, protein shakes, etc. to such an extent that these things become idols they are unwilling to live without. When we start approaching food as something we can use to make our body do whatever we want it to do, and not as a gift that we must graciously enjoy and thoughtfully steward, we’ve got a problem. 

What about music? Are there some types of music that you believe are clearly sinful? If not, how might you judge whether or not one should be listening?

MCCRACKEN: I think with any gray area, there probably is a line somewhere, but it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where it is in some universal, for-everyone-in-every-context sense. Is a song with one f-word OK but a song with 15 not OK? Does an explicit song about rape cross the line? What about music that glorifies drug use in the same breath that it powerfully expresses a cathartic sentiment of some marginalized group? The line is different for everyone and often depends on one’s cultural context and their own struggles/weaknesses. In Gray Matters I suggest five discerning questions that can help each of us figure out when a certain form of music is unproductive or sinful for us to listen to.

1. Does it point me toward God?

2. Would Jesus listen to it?

3. What would my community say?

4. Is it good quality?

5. Is it edifying?

Asking these questions, I believe, will help us think more critically about what we should or should not be listening to.

What type of music and food do you enjoy?

MCCRACKEN: I like all sorts of music--everything from jazz and classical to hip-hop, indie rock and folk/singer-songwriter. In general I like anything that feels honest, personal and true (rather than pop-manufactured for a mass audience). Some of my favorite albums this year include Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and Over the Rhine’s Meet Me At the Edge of the World. For food, sort of like music, I really gravitate toward things that are out-of-the-box, experimental, and personal. I love going to restaurants where the chef’s passion and story comes through in the food, or when their creativity just astounds me. I recently took my wife to Alma in downtown L.A. to celebrate her birthday and the food there was mind-blowing. The celebrated chef, 27, describes his menu as “personal cooking, based on memories, emotions or experiences,” and that was really apparent to us. As we tasted our dessert--a “sunchoke split” with caramelized sunchokes, “ash” meringue, “wood” ice cream toasted marshmallows--we could almost imagine the childhood campfire in Big Sur that inspired the concept. I love food that is so creative and so tasty that you take one bite and can’t help but worship God: for creating such amazing edible raw materials on earth and for creating mankind with the creativity to think up ways to turn it into an artful feast. 

How do you practice discerning what is good and evil in your own life?

MCCRACKEN: I think the key thing is just immersing myself in Scripture and the resources of Christian wisdom (including Godly men and women in my life) around me, always measuring my own discernment by those external standards. Too often our culture’s insistence on the sovereignty of the self (“to each his own!”) leads to unwise, undiscerning choices because they are never run through the gauntlet of anything transcendent. In my life I always want to check myself and my inclinations against a higher standard (Scripture). Developing discernment and wisdom in anything happens over time by training ourselves in the habits of Christ-like living: reading Scripture, prayer, surrounding ourselves with older, wiser Christians (and valuing their perspectives!), and being willing to put aside self-interest for the sake of the gospel.

Trillia Newbell

Trillia Newbell is the author of  Enjoy: Finding the Freedom to Delight Daily in God’s Good Gifts (2016),  Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves (2015) and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (2014). Her writings on issues... Read More